Castaway by Robert Macklin

Reviewed by Rod McLary

Robert Macklin is the author of 29 books – a number of which address the history of Australia.  In his most recent book – Castaway – he has written a critical examination of the ‘Frontier Wars’ which took place in the 19th century between the advancing European settlers and the Aboriginal peoples.

In an interesting approach, the author juxtaposes the history of the wars, with a particular focus on those in Queensland, against the story of Narcisse Pelletier.  This is a particular challenge for the reviewer as the two threads of Castaway are quite different from each other; and there is no cross-over between the two.  However, the unrelenting violence in the history of the wars requires the counter-balance of Narcisse’s story to sustain the reader to the conclusion.

In 1858, the fourteen-year-old cabin boy Narcisse sailed on the Saint Paul en route to Hong Kong and then Australia.  Sometime after leaving Hong Kong, the Saint Paul sailed into heavy fog.  Narcisse was on watch and he did not see the looming rocks until too late.  The ship ran aground on the eastern tip of New Guinea.  Blamed by the captain and crew for the shipwreck, Narcisse lived through a kind of hell as the longboat sailed towards land.  In his words ‘And never for a minute was he allowed to forget his part in the events which brought his companions to their plight’ [20]. 

Landing just north of the Daintree, the captain and the crew abandoned Narcisse to his fate and continued their journey to Java.  Narcisse was found by members of the Night Island peoples [the Uutaalnganu tribe] and taken in by them.  

How Narcisse was assimilated into the tribe and spent the next 17 years as a full member of the tribe makes for engrossing reading.  The author – through describing Narcisse’s day-to-day experiences – sets out with respect and sensitivity the rituals and practices of the tribe.  Consequently, the reader gains considerable understanding of those rituals and the social structure of the tribe. 

One of the first contacts with the aboriginal peoples was made by Captain James Cook who said – in a backhanded complimentary way – ‘They may appear to be some of the most wretched people upon Earth but in reality they are far more happier than we Europeans’ [30].

Earlier contact between Europeans and the aboriginal peoples was worse.  In 1606, Willem Janszoon – according to local people – landed on the western side of Cape York and attempted to kidnap a young woman.  After a brief but bloody encounter with the men of her clan, Janszoon and his crew retreated to Java.  In 1688, William Dampier landed on the western coast and was ‘scathing in his description of the inhabitants’ [32]; he described them as ‘the miserablest people in the world’ [32].

Perhaps the views of these explorers were somehow embedded in the minds of those who followed because, by and large, contact between them and the Aboriginal peoples was violent and abusive.  There was an explicit belief that the settlers ‘had a right’ to occupy the country.  In 1836, this belief was confirmed by the British government’s official declaration that Australia was ‘terra nullius’ – that is, the land belonged to no one before British possession.  In a single stroke, 60,000 years of attachment to the land by the Aboriginal peoples was nullified.

Henry Reynolds is quoted as saying in his book The Other Side of the Frontier – ‘while conflict was ubiquitous in traditional societies, territorial conquest was virtually unknown.  Alienation of land was not only unthinkable, it was literally impossible’ [39]. As alluded to in the quote, there are disputes with neighbouring tribes but not to gain territory. 

The confused and frightened responses of the Aboriginal people to what they saw as an invasion is captured in the following few sentences.

When the gaudily dressed intruders arrived with their teams of slaves to be cruelly whipped when they disobeyed … they were at first nonplussed.

And when the soldiers turned their magic firesticks upon them to deal death at impossible distances, the people were terrified. [39]

There is no end to the horrors perpetrated on the Aboriginal peoples.  The author pays particular attention to the atrocities which occurred in Queensland at the hands of the settlers and the Native Police.  The chapters which address these atrocities, undertaken to disperse any Aborigine who impeded the movement of the settlers into new territories, are heart-wrenching to read and the author does not shy away from the harsh realities of the ‘Frontier Wars’.

In counter-point to the violence perpetrated upon the Aboriginal peoples elsewhere in Queensland, Narcisse becomes more and more at one with the Night Islanders.

But, in April 1875, the pearler John Bell sailed into the Night Islanders territory and sent a longboat ashore for fresh water.  When back on board the John Bell, those who collected the water spoke of the ‘white man’ they saw.  In a masterstroke of mistaken good intention, the captain believed that the ‘white man’ would welcome rescue.  By deception, Narcisse was enticed into the longboat and taken to the John Bell which then set sail for Java and then England.

Eventually, Narcisse is returned to his hometown Saint-Gilles in France where his parents still lived.  As would be expected, he could not adjust to village life nor could he forget his family back with the Night Island people.  Prejudice from the local people drove his family to seek exorcism from the local priest Monsieur le Curè.  Inevitably, the exorcism failed – ‘Narcisse remained mute.  The sea was lapping on a distant shore’. [279]

After a descent into mental and physical breakdown, Narcisse died on 28 September 1894 aged 50.

Robert Macklin has dedicated Castaway to the late Donald Thomson – ‘one of Australia’s greatest Aboriginal anthropologists’ [xii].  The author has in his own words written ‘the story of Aboriginal society in Far North Queensland as … it was lived before the white man destroyed it’ [xiii].

In chronicling Narcisse’s story, the author clearly sets out the deep affinity between the Aboriginal peoples and the land, the cultural norms and practices of their society, and, through the eyes and ears of Narcisse, demonstrates to the reader the rich cultural heritage of the Aboriginal peoples which so many are ready to deny.

The juxtapositioning of Narcisse’s story and the abuses perpetrated on the Aborigines by some white settlers and both the Queensland and British governments can be quite challenging at first.  The extent to which the settlers and the Native Police went to clear the land of the Aborigines is almost beyond belief.  The reader needs time to reflect on the history before the author’s intent becomes clear.  Robert Macklin set out to ‘acknowledge the terrible carnage wrought by bullets, poison and despair that the First Australians suffered’ [xiv].  He has achieved this in no small measure.

Castaway needs to be read by every Australian who has a genuine interest in the country’s history before white settlement.

Castaway

[2019]

by Robert Macklin

Hachette Australia

ISBN 978 0 7336 3849 7

320pp; $32.99

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